Imagine listening to Baby Got Back...with your back! This is no dream. It's really happening.
When we first heard about the SubPac project that Toronto electronic music collective Studiofeed was working on, we were intrigued, but also wary that it would turn out to be just another gimmick, like the long forgotten quadrophonic sound systems of the 70s. The device is essentially a backrest that vibrates to the low end of the music that you're listening to on headphones (or studio monitors), which simulates the feeling of being in front of a large stack of speakers. Nice idea, but it could easily just end up being a really fancy back massager.
But then the testimonials started popping up from an impressive array of internationally renowned producers and musicians: Flying Lotus, Joker, Kode9, Gilles Peterson, Hank Shockley, Adrian Sherwood and more. Not only were the bass-loving music celebrities saying kind words, but their Kickstarter campaign was also rapidly approaching its target of $75 000 to start manufacturing (they've now surpassed it, with only a few days left to contribute).
This definitely didn't seem like vapourware anymore, so we visited Studiofeed's downtown studio to check it out in person. Turns out it's way more impressive once you turn it on and sit down.
There's been a lot of research over the years about how we experience sound and music not only through our eardrums, but also through the rest of our bodies. Anyone who's ever experienced a high-end club sound system up close knows how much the earth-shaking physical effects produced by a wall of bass bins can drastically change how you hear a song, and it's long been acknowledged that most modern dance music simply doesn't sound right at typical home-listening levels. SubPac aims to compensate for that, and has grabbed the attention especially of European electronic producers, who often can't get away with cranking the bass in their home studios due to nearby neighbours.
The first thing you notice when you start turning up the device is how surprisingly natural and real it feels. It's hard to resist the urge to take off the headphones to make sure no one just turned on a sound system in the room. At higher settings you start losing definition, and it begins to feel like someone hid a vibrator under the seat cushion, but once you find the sweet spot it's almost disturbing how well it simulates the feeling of dancing in front of a speaker stack (except without the ear-bleeding volume levels).
There are some limitations to the device though. Since the vibration is only on your back, there's something odd about not feeling the bass in your feet, where you'd traditionally be aware of it. Though in theory, this technology could be easily translated into a vibrating mat to put your chair on top of.
The level control has more range than is useful, as it just compresses into one long vibration at higher settings. However, this is just at the prototype stage, so you can expect some further fine-tuning of the internal software. Being able to control the crossover frequency would be a useful addition, so that producers could better test how their tracks will be reproduced on a variety of different club systems.
If you buy one of the early versions now through the Kickstarter campaign, it'll run you $350. This is definitely more than the average consumer would spend on headphones, but is pretty reasonable when compared to studio monitors and powered subwoofers. As they move into mass production, the cost should come down even more in the future, which could mean that it will eventually find a fan base outside of just music professionals. I'm sure my neighbours wish I had one already.